Southern Africa provides fertile ground for dominant political parties, many of whom have been around for longer than most of their citizens have been alive.
The ANC in South Africa has enjoyed an unbroken 20 year spell in power since the end of Apartheid in 1994. But the ANC doesn’t win the prize for ruling the roost in this region. In fact, the ANC is the baby of the group.
In Namibia, SWAPO have ruled comfortably for 24 years. Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF have been in power in Zimbabwe for 34 years. Angola’s MPLA and Mozambique’s FRELIMO have both held power for a cool 39 years. In Botswana, the BDP have ruled the country for a whopping 49 years. Doing the maths, one finds that dominant parties in these six states have been in power for a collective total of 205 years.
One might wonder what has happened in these countries that have, to widely varying degrees, allowed for opposition political parties to operate and in some cases to challenge for political power. Civil society groups and the media also provide some space for public expression and elections occur with regularity. Yet the dominant parties remain dominant.
In 2014, elections took place in three of these six countries – South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana – with Namibians heading to the polls later this month. So far, there have been no surprises with the ANC, FRELIMO and the BDP continuing to rule. And, barring a miracle, SWAPO is also in line for another comfortable victory in Namibia.
In this context, should we conclude that elections are meaningless exercises and that the institutions of democracy that exist are merely window dressing? Should we say that they have been designed merely to legitimise parties that have become entrenched in power and that have the access to resources needed to maintain patronage networks and silence their enemies?
Or is there more to it than that?
A surface analysis of the results of the 2014 elections reveals that in all three countries, the share of the vote won by the ruling parties is declining. The ANC’s vote fell from 67% in 2009 to 62% in 2014. FRELIMO only won 144 seats in parliament, almost a 25% decrease from the last election. The BDP won 37 seats in parliament, an 18% decline.
Should this trend continue, the logical conclusion is that power will shift to another party. This could happen in 5, 10 or 15 years, depending on which scenario planner you listen to. That means that elections are becoming more meaningful. Should it come to pass, those changes will have significant consequences for the region and they will mark an important evolution in southern Africa’s democratic development.
Certainly, election time is an important opportunity to question politicians and policies, even if those politicians know they will be reelected with a comfortable margin. It is a time to mobilise normally apathetic citizens, to educate the public and to build campaigns for change.
Elections alone however cannot solve the problem. If the energy and momentum demonstrated during election campaigns could be maintained after elections, dominant parties would face a much tougher test. Unless citizens become more active and interested between elections in focusing on strengthening accountability, the progress towards a more level playing field will slow, and that day may not arrive for many years.
Of course, citizens do demonstrate in between elections, although typically around single issues. For instance in South Africa, there has been a wide-ranging public campaign to oppose E-tolls that has forced the ANC government in Gauteng to consider its options.
Those moments of active citizenship are very valuable demonstrations of the power of positive interaction with governments. However for democracy to develop and deepen, those moments must become more frequent and widespread; and the activism should focus on improving the quality of representation and the system of governance itself.
Civil society, political parties, the media, even schools all have a vital role to play in making this happen.
Until that day arrives, dominant parties in Southern Africa are likely to thrive in fertile conditions.